How Fiction Shapes Us
Guest Contributor

24 November 2012

By guest blogger Joshua Landy

What, if anything, do works of verbal art—poems, plays, novels, films—do for us?  These days, most people will tell you one of two things: some will claim that works of verbal art make us better human beings (usually by teaching us Important Lessons about Life, or by rendering us more empathetic), and others will insist they have no effect on us whatsoever.  I happen to think both of these hypotheses are wrong, and that fictions are capable of extremely important—but morally neutral—effects on our lives.

On this week’s show, you’ll hear John Perry espousing the second view.  For him, it’s all just candy corn—a perfectly pleasurable little snack, but with no nutritional value.  Don’t believe him!  We can know for sure that he doesn’t mean it (sorry, John!) because he himself is the author of a work of fiction, and an excellent one too.  His Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality makes full use of literary form to do philosophical work—decent prima facie evidence, I reckon, that he sees a genuine value in at least some forms of fiction.

Does that mean that literature inevitably makes us better human beings, in the sense of being more altruistic?  I don’t believe that either.  There’s some evidence suggesting that reading fiction improves our ability to access the mental states of other people, but that is a morally neutral skill, one that can be put to the service of manipulation just as easily as it can be put to the service of philanthropy.  As for “messages” ostensibly delivered by fictions, these are almost always banal, unsubstantiated, and in conflict with other “messages” you could pick up, if you were not careful, from different books.  (Crime and Punishment doesn’t “teach” us that all criminals feel guilty, any more than Crimes and Misdemeanors “teaches” us that they don’t.)  As Schiller rightly says, it is only a bad reader who will “enjoy a serious and moving poem as though it were a sermon.”

(Oh and yes, I know about Uncle Tom’s Cabin; but I also know that Joseph Goebbels loved Dostoevsky, Heinrich Himmler was a big fan of Siddhartha, and a person of my acquainance saw Albee’s The Goat and decided bestiality is OK.  As they say in those medicine commercials, “results may vary”!)

So what should we hope to get from works of verbal art?  Quite a number of things, actually.  Some writings, to be sure, don’t do much for us at all: I’m sure John Perry’s point is apt when it comes to The Da Vinci Code.  Others, however, do us the immense favor of helping us to know who we are and what we believe.  (Noël Carroll has written eloquently about this, and you will hear Ken Taylor speaking equally eloquently about it on the show.)  Then there are those that console us, offer us company in our sorrow, help us to grieve.  And there are also some that offer formal models for thinking of our life as a story (Ken, John, and I talked about this on an earlier show).

All this said, philosophers may be particularly interested in a further effect works of literature can have on us.  There’s a set of fictions, I want to suggest, whose function is to help us strengthen our mental capacities.  What they offer is not knowledge but know-how; what they do is not to teach but to train.  And they do so by means of literary form, not by means of claims put forward by a narrator or character.  (That’s why only literary works will do, and not treatises, which have other things to offer.)  

Plato is an excellent example: rather than writing treatises, Plato chose to compose fictional dialogues (thus prefiguring the equally excellent John Perry).  And these dialogues deploy the very literary device of authorial irony, in as much as Socrates, the smartest character on stage, isn’t always making the soundest of arguments.  The effect is to invite us to become active participants, registering the holes in arguments, trying to fill them, dialoguing with the dialogue—and hence becoming better philosophers in the process.

Similar things are going on in Beckett, whose novels offer us implements straight out of the ancient skeptics’ toolbox; in Proust, whose writing helps us adopt a Nietzschean attitude toward our lives; and even in the parables of Jesus, which cultivate our faith by cultivating our capacity for figurative language.  (More about all this on the show.)

None of this means that reading cannot sometimes catalyze changes of attitude (for better or worse): after all, self-knowledge can sometimes prompt modifications of various kinds.  And none of this means that fictions aren’t also fun to read.  Above all, none of this means that we only love fictions because of what they do for us, let alone that we tyrannically exploit them for what they have to offer us.  But a great work of fiction is like a great friend: while we love them for who they are, we can be thankful for what they do for our lives.  And just as it would be a criminal reduction of friendship to see it as either a meaningless pleasure or a relentless program of mutual moral improvement, so it is a catastrophic reduction of literature to see it as either a bottomless bucket of candy corn or an endless stream of sermons.

Comments (26)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, November 23, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Here is how I see it (in as

Here is how I see it (in as few words as possible): fiction is entertainment; whether it is a book; film; or work of art. It is not supposed to shape us, but when it does, there are often more bad than good consequences. I expect that, proportionally, writers of fiction bank far more money than non-fiction writers. That is only MY hunch, of course. I don't plan to do any hard research towards writing a book on the subject. Not worth the effort, I think. Non-fiction writing is for academics who have particular credentials---club members, uh, if you will. You asked another key question in your post: Can it (fiction) make us better than we were before? As an addendum (or amendment) to what I asserted above, I'll say: sometimes; the caveat being it depends upon the values; the core character of the reader(s)/observer(s).

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 24, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Example of transformation

Example of transformation from the reading of fiction.
When I was 18 I read Brother's Karamazov for the first time. As I proceeded through Demetri's trial it dawned on my that other people's thoughts did not follow the same patterns as my own. It was my first realization of the true diversity of human thought. This immediately enabled me to relate to others in a new and deeper way that immediately paid off in my dating life.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 24, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Asked to come up with

Asked to come up with examples of 'fiction' that makes us smarter or whatever, and the best he can come up with is plato and proust! out of the multiple infinitude of wonderful novels and fiction he can only come up with two totally ponderous boring works? That's just pitiful.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 24, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

This discussion of the uses

This discussion of the uses of fiction seems waay too utilitarian. why is it necessary to consider how fiction is 'supposed to' do anything? amy more than jazz, beethoven, baseball games, hiking, non-utilitarian sex, etc etc etc. We do these things because they give us joy. if something more comes of these activities then so much the better. but worrying about what we are supposed to be getting from them is a sure way to take away the joy and make them pointless and stultifying.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 24, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Along the lines of the final

Along the lines of the final remarks of JP and Ian Shoales:
"A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." ?Mark Twain

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Sunday, November 25, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

FICTION?S PATHS

FICTION?S PATHS
In every way, except one, concerning my conscious-self, I am today at age 69, the same person I was at 16. The one exception is that I have learned one more truth since then: ?There are many paths.?
How did I learn this one idea? As our hosts point out, by practice. Self-fashioning, self-realizing, and practicing changes, and exercising my self-changing chops, in response to all the stuff around me, and to appealing ideas in sources such as fiction, among other sources.
But it takes practice, practice, practice, and much exercise, of self-changing abilities, to be able to make changes ? to find other ?paths.? Doing this, I call ?B12K1,? or ?Be One to Know One.? If you want to understand Catholicism, say, as a ?path,? don?t just read about Catholicism; try to see what it would mean to be Catholic by finding in yourself what the sources of such a belief might be, and practicing upon that belief as best you can ? now you are coming closer to real understanding.
Only philosophers could be expected to be good at B12K1, because only philosophers are professionally interested in, and open to, considering the worthiness of various paths. The hosts struggled with the idea of the impact of fiction, in the show: but it is a struggle only philosophers are practiced in, and it is only of interest to them. All other readers read for the ?entertainment? of ?viewing? other paths from afar.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Sunday, November 25, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Hey Paul- I posted mine

Hey Paul- I posted mine before I saw yours. Must be some "truth" for us both to have had such a similar experience; I wish I had been aware that it could help me with girls! But I always say "There is only one thing I have ever done that didn't have as its intended object to "get" girls: play golf." Very few women are impressed with a guy's ability to play golf.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 25, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Fiction shapes us? Yes, I

Fiction shapes us? Yes, I suppose so. However, I would contend that reality is a larger influence. And, at the risk of stating the obvious: non-fiction expresses the social consciousness of reality. Personally, I have no time for fiction now. That was for an earlier time---when I did not know what I know now. Read some books, if you care to do so. Authors such as Diamond; Gould; Wilson; and Dawkins have expressed much. In accordance with Mirugai, I am today 64. It still feels better than being dead---as far as I know.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, November 26, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Non fiction is fiction too,

Non fiction is fiction too, isn't it?
What history or biography or even auto-biography, or for that matter science or religion or philosophy book is truly true? What is a non fiction book?
Just me,
=

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, November 26, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

To Paul and Mirugai----and

To Paul and Mirugai----and anyone who believes in things they don't understand: There is this ephemeral, unquantifiable thing called synchronicity, as named by Carl Jung. After reading about it, I realized I had experienced it---although,my contemporaries called it coincidence. Clearly, fiction shapes us-like it or not---changing paradigms are a part of cultural evolution, or, to repeat a tired aphorism: progress. Some learned thinkers are questioning the whole progress thing. Philosophy asks questions. All good. Science asks questions, and, eventually, arrives with answers---some good; some, not so much.
So, what about that synchronicity thing? Is that fiction---or something else? Tell me something good,
Respectfully, Neuman.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, November 27, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Synchronicity: Equality

Synchronicity: Equality unites the Universe, Be equal, Be One.
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, November 27, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

All good opinions;all well

All good opinions;all well-stated, within personal contexts. Fiction, inasmuch as it portrays imagination, shapes our propensities for dreaming, further propelling our creativity and inventiveness as homo sapiens. Works of non-fiction-to the extent that they ARE non-fictitious-are statements of reality. Even writers of non-fiction have biases, that infect their works. We who read those words must learn to parse the biases and seek facts. It is a matter of continuing education, and really good writers in both genres, like to challenge their readers---just to see if they are paying attention.As with most aspects of conscious existence, fiction and non-fiction need to be in some sort of balance (asin: good/bad; right/wrong; yin/yang, and so on.)
I understand Jung's notion of synchronicity---whether I believe it or not. I do not get Mr.Ahles' remark about synchronicity, equality and the universe. That's OK, though. I do not get nuclear physics, either. Or brain surgery.
Warmest Regards,
TAP.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, November 28, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Allow me then to try to

Allow me then to try to simplify the truth for you Armchair,
Synchronicity is One.
=

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Wednesday, November 28, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

SYNCHRONICITY, HOW TO ?

SYNCHRONICITY, HOW TO ?
I think I know what it is, but a much more valuable exercise is to think about how a philosopher might go about finding out what it is. In other words, what is the philosophical method for addressing the question: ?What do you think about synchronicity??
Philosophy is rational thinking about thought. The duality (though MJA and the Buddhists say, quite correctly also, there is no duality, only unity) is 1. Matter and 2. Consciousness. Matter is the realm of science; demonstration and illustration are the methods of proof (and I contend, the more dramatic (in a theatrical sense) the demonstration, the more convincing -- the more ?true? ? the conclusions).
Consciousness is the realm of philosophy, and through metaphor, poetry. Rational thinking about thought is the method of philosophy. How to practice this method? A while back, a poster to the blog said: ?Without neuroscience, philosophy is just endless speculation.? She is correct (though she was seeking to disparage): Neuroscience is in the matter realm, and has no place in philosophical inquiry. But the best way to do philosophy is to endlessly speculate, rationally. There are in fact two ways to end the speculation, with either ?I agree with A,? or ?I think it is A; you think it is B, but we agree to disagree.? Only philosophers train themselves to rationally consider both A and B (and the other ?many paths?); and these considerations are done by solitary thinking in a comfortable chair, or in dialog with other philosophers (I think it was Plato who said that all writing is one-sided advocacy, whereas dialogue is a better route for exploring propositions).
Keep in mind that you are not looking for ?explanations.? That is the realm of science (matter). It is tempting to be led into the abyss of explaining something, but the process of finding causation obscures and obviates the doing of philosophy: for instance, I am sure some neuroscientists can pinpoint certain nerves and genes and molecular and cellular structures that ?make? a person an optimist, say, or a Jew, say (I have heard talk of ?the Jewish gene?), but that ?fact? still doesn?t describe the consciousness states that are optimism and religious belief. The philosopher Scott the Gardener says: Do an MRI of a running-engine automobile, and the image will have blue and red and orange colored sections, but that won?t tell you how the car works. And a very clever quantum physics philosopher asked Ken and John ?Why do you think everything needs to be explained?? Use endless speculation as your method, not explanation.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, November 28, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I'd like to thank Mirugai,

I'd like to thank Mirugai, Michael and Dave (that uneducated carpenter guy). First, Michael: you stick to your Buddist-sounding roots. I respect that immensely, even though "being" and "oneness" do not apply to every discussion and/or argument about aspects of philosophy and metaphysics. Mirugai takes a logical pragmatic approach in pointing out that Michael's unity consists of a duality, whether he likes it or not. Finally, Dave appears to have an experiential foundation with which we may take issue and find fault. I do not sense that he cares. He is what many of us are still seeking: comfortable in his own skin.
Diversity of experience and opinion are part of what makes us conscious beings. Bully to all, and to all, a good night,
Neuman.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, November 29, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Okay. Scott the Gardener. Has

Okay. Scott the Gardener. Has this person weighed in before? I am curious: Where can I find commentary from the gardener? Sounds like my kind of philosopher...
Best to All of You From Me. And Merry Christmas, too.
Dave.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, November 29, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I remember years ago being

I remember years ago being very depressed. All of my ambitions seem stymied, I just lost my girl, Xmas was approaching and the funds in the bank account were at a nadir. I was walking down the college corridor and a play was going on in the theater. Free for students with ID so I checked in stood at the back and became engrossed in the fictional play. It was the play Harvie by Mary Chase I think. It gave me a new perspective, I left with a new attitude and the next day, took time to reconnect with my family and close friends. I began to live life in the present, not worrying about the future, and not clinging to the past. It wasn't just entertainment I got that night but much more. It was a new way of thinking about my life. A transformation that took only a couple of hours.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, November 30, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Truth applies to everything.

Truth applies to everything.
Hey Dave, wasn't Jesus a Carpenter too?
And as far dualisms, conscience equals matter as energy = mass;
Uncertainty divides the Universe, truth unites us All.
And thanks for sharing Ron,
Be True,
=

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, May 22, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Funny, I always thought

Funny, I always thought quantum much more understandable than Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. Synchronicity is a stubborn insistence upon seeing a pattern even where there is none. The most moving novel I ever read was Jude the Obscure, but I sincerely hope that synchronicity does not hold.      
Mirugai,
Not Exactly. The Plato dialog you hint at is the Phaedrus. In it, Socrates lampoons a written text as incapable of responding to a simple question. In his lifetime writing, rather than recitation, became the dominant form of literature, and he was ruing the loss, not so much of immediacy as responsibility. The most concrete form of the proposition is, before after all, the statement. Take the person out of it and something is lost indeed. Reading is missing that something. Dialectic takes two, at least. The written text, including the novel, is undialectical.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, May 22, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Been awhile since I have

Been awhile since I have thought about the premise(s) of this post. But, inasmuch as it remains a current and pervasive influence on civilizations all over the world, I thought I'd offer another idea or two on the notion of fiction as a shaper of human thought and actions. There are, of course, many forms of and alleged purposes for propaganda. In the final analysis, however, the foundational aim of propaganda (often fictional in nature) is the control of humans; the minimization of anarchy; and maintenance of a status quotient, with the intention of keeping the gears greased and the machinery running smoothly. All tellers of stories, proponents of propaganda and founders of fiction have their particular social, political and/or religious goals as they present half-truths, obfuscations and outright lies, with the hope of swaying their audiences to their ways of thinking. And, make no mistake about it, they will employ all manner of artifice to achieve the goal(s) at hand.
Point of Illustration: I was recently moved when the new head of the Catholic Church praised an individual whose name is well known as an "angel" of something or other. The personage named did not in my best recollection seem at all angelic. I was moved, however. Moved by disbelief. Many people of a certain age now disbelieve almost anything they are told by experts, authorities and others who have been endowed with the public trust. Much of this fringe group (a public that once trusted most everything) now trusts no one. To them, everyone now must pay cash---no checks; no money-orders; no credit cards---no exceptions. Lying to get one's point across; to gain and keep others' attention and trust; to sell the impossible dream. is the new normal and engenders no shame or trepidation. Remember Michael Valentine, the hero protagonist of that old sci-fi novel by Robert Anson Heinlein ? If you do, perhaps you should grok in fullness what is happening. It is all about control at any cost. Good luck, pilgrims. HGN.

Or's picture

Or

Sunday, May 24, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Imagination is the door to

Imagination is the door to fiction. I believe that we all might have passed through this door back and forth in an attempt to experiment with inner thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and so forth. As we grow, evolve, or learn, this willingness to experiment changes, but if we did not have the raw material to imagine built in us, experimentation would be in vain or non-existent.  Aren?t we naturally drawn to empathize with certain characters or abhor others? We might perfect, by means of the learning/reading process, our personal ways to empathize, but the willingness to empathize was there in first place. To me, it is pretty much left to disguising oneself momentarily, as in a Venetian carnival, and going back to your roots next day. For example, I abhor Lolita?s Humbert Humbert prior to reading the novel, but in the end I wonder ? have I learned to empathize with him? I can put myself in his position via my ability to imagine, and I can consider this question. So what just happened in my reading? Then, after some time, I realize I do not actually empathize with that character. Still, the piece opens up the door to thinking about these matters, leaving one, as might be said, with the effects of a hangover.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Saturday, November 24, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

FICTION?S PATHS

FICTION?S PATHS
In every way, except one, concerning my conscious-self, I am today at age 69, the same person I was at 16. The one exception is that I have learned one more truth since then: ?There are many paths.?
How did I learn this one idea? As our hosts point out, by practice. Self-fashioning, self-realizing, and practicing changes, and exercising my self-changing chops, in response to all the stuff around me, and to appealing ideas in sources such as fiction, among other sources.
But it takes practice, practice, practice, and much exercise, of self-changing abilities, to be able to make changes ? to find other ?paths.? Doing this, I call ?B12K1,? or ?Be One to Know One.? If you want to understand Catholicism, say, as a ?path,? don?t just read about Catholicism; try to see what it would mean to be Catholic by finding in yourself what the sources of such a belief might be, and practicing upon that belief as best you can ? now you are coming closer to real understanding.
Only philosophers could be expected to be good at B12K1, because only philosophers are professionally interested in, and open to, considering the worthiness of various paths. The hosts struggled with the idea of the impact of fiction, in the show: but it is a struggle only philosophers are practiced in, and it is only of interest to them. All other readers read for the ?entertainment? of ?viewing? other paths from afar.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, November 28, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

People today live, as they

People today live, as they always have, mostly in a fantasy-world sustained by myths and other fictions. Reality intrudes and from time to time must be acknowledged but most often can be dismissed either by elaborating the old stories or by creating new ones. Those who control the popular myths and other fictions rule the world.
The most influential story-teller of the Western world was the arch-villain and anti-philosopher Plato, who, through his exquisite writing skill, reduced the concrete realities of the material world into shadows and replaced them by abstractions. The result was stagnation of real progress.
Plato's material counterpart is Beowulf's monster as represented in John Gardner's novel, Grendel. Grendel remains a monster, describing himself, "Pointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of dead men, murdered children, martyred cows." But Gardner's Grendel is a philosophical monster. Nevertheless, like Plato, he hates progress. That is why he beings a campaign against Hrothgar who brings about material progress. His campaign escalates into war with the appearance of the blind harper (whom Grendel calls the Shaper), who turns the sordid murders of the Danes into glorious epics and even more so when old Hrothgar acquires his young queen as a tribute and she (being saintly sacrificial in the interest of her people) introduces kindness and gentleness into the realm.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, November 29, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Fiction has confused me in

Fiction has confused me in the past. It has shielded my mind from truth. I have done much reading in my life - of fiction and now more of nonfiction. I must say that the nonfiction does much more for my mind, than fiction has.
Forgive my cynicism if I ask - does most fiction exist for the purpose of distracting our minds?

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, December 20, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I have to agree with the

I have to agree with the first comment. As we mature and get older we realize there are many alternative paths to get where we need to go in life.

drag123's picture

drag123

Friday, August 14, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

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